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Dr. Connie Eaves developed a groundbreaking lab technique to separate cancerous stem cells from normal stem cells and also analyzed the subtypes of breast cancer and their corresponding stem cells.Handout

Connie Eaves helped create the foundations of cancer stem-cell research, and was known worldwide for her basic and applied medical research. She sought to identify critical changes that cause certain human cells to undergo malignant transformation. Her work led to improved treatments for leukemia and breast cancer, and established lab methodologies that other researchers still use.

“Her contribution to science has been extraordinary,” says Cate Murray, president and CEO of the Stem Cell Network, of which Dr. Eaves was a founding scientist. “When they call her a trailblazer, that could not be more true.”

As a cellular biologist, she made important discoveries about the origins of blood and mammary cells, and how cancers develop. She identified dormant, chemotherapy-resistant stem cells present in leukemia, which also appear in other cancers.

Dr. Eaves developed a groundbreaking lab technique to separate cancerous stem cells from normal stem cells. She also analyzed the subtypes of breast cancer and their corresponding stem cells. These discoveries have led to more effective approaches to bone marrow transplants, and finding new cellular targets for breast cancer treatments.

Her work and that of her husband, Allen Eaves, provided the foundation for the company Stemcell Technologies. It’s now a global enterprise, but started as a venture to sell the media for growing stem cells that they discovered.

Dr. Eaves died on March 7 at age 79, from complications related to colorectal cancer. She was a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Medical Genetics and School of Biomedical Engineering, and a distinguished scientist at the British Columbia Cancer Agency’s Terry Fox Laboratory, in Vancouver.

Through her work there, she published about 500 journal articles and trained more than a hundred graduate and postdoctoral students.

“She’s irreplaceable,” says Amanda Kotzer, research projects and operations leader at the Terry Fox Laboratory.

“It’s hard to put into words the enormous breadth of her knowledge,” Dr. Kotzer adds. While Dr. Eaves began her research career studying blood cancers, she pivoted later to breast cancer – fuelled by curiosity and her own experience as a breast cancer survivor.

“Academics don’t do that. It was a huge shift.”

Dr. Eaves accomplished much, owing to her innate intelligence, dedication and hard work. “She was a workaholic, and a very knowledgeable and outstanding scientist. And also an excellent mother and wife,” says Allen, who worked as her research partner for decades. “She was just smarter and knew more.”

She was also extremely driven and would work all night on an almost weekly basis. She gave up the practice only when she reached her 70s. “We often had disagreements about the number of hours in the day that were workable,” says Dr. Kotzer, who recalls putting in long hours beside Connie fine-tuning every sentence in grant proposals.

At work and at home, Connie would drop everything to focus on what others needed. She was known for her detailed editing of her graduate students’ papers, and the school work of her four children. “She was very demanding,” says son David, noting that few supervisors would do extensive line edits of their students’ writing, but she did.

Once, when David asked her about her life and work, she replied, “If I look back on my own career, I think some of the proudest moments are watching the successful defences of every PhD [student] I have ever trained as a supervisor.”

John Dirks, former chair of medicine at UBC, who helped secure the $1-million grant that led to the foundation of the Terry Fox Laboratory, credits Dr. Eaves’s success to her approach. “She did very rigorous, hard work and she was very organized,” he says. “They renovated and equipped a bakery for the lab and from those small beginnings, Connie and Allen left a legacy in B.C. and in the whole field of stem-cell biology. It’s a remarkable legacy.”

“Connie is one of the titans of hematopoietic research,” the dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University, George Daley, said upon her induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2019. (Hematopoietic refers to the formation of blood cells.) “The type of work that she did required a remarkable degree of experimental rigour.”

Dr. Eaves earned numerous honours in her career, including appointment as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1994 and fellow of the Royal Society in 2021. She also received the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award in 2019, and the Stem Cell Network’s Till and McCulloch Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022. She was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2021.

She was hailed as an innovative researcher, teacher and mentor, and also an advocate for women in science.

Constance Jean Halperin was born on May 22, 1944, in Ottawa to Mary (née Sawdey), who had a master’s degree in music, and Israel, a Princeton-educated math professor at Queen’s University. He was serving in the Canadian Army at the time, doing research. According to family lore, her paternal grandmother, Fanny, immigrated to Canada from Russia on her own as a teenager to avoid antisemitic persecution. Connie grew up with an elder brother, Stephen, and two younger siblings, Bill and Mary Hannah.

Life in the Halperin family was disrupted when Connie’s father, Israel was arrested and accused of espionage in 1946. He was acquitted a year later. “She told me it was very scary,” Allen says of Connie’s experience of that time.

She had finished high school when her father – who returned to work at Queen’s and then went to the University of Toronto – did a sabbatical in France, and she had the choice of taking a year of university biology or medical school there, so she chose the latter.

However, upon her return to Canada, no schools would honour those credits, so she took biology and chemistry at Queen’s – with just nine other female students in a class of a hundred in what was considered a premed program – graduating in 1964. While she had wanted to become a doctor, the medical school acceptance rates for women were very low at that time, so she took her MSc in biology instead, then a PhD at the University of Manchester.

In 1970, she returned to Canada for a fellowship at the University of Toronto and Ontario Cancer Institute. By this time, she was married to physicist Phil Gregory and pregnant. When she went to meet her supervisor, Ernest McCulloch – an influential researcher who helped show that stem cells can differentiate into all cell types – walked into the room, took a glance at her baby bump, and left.

His colleague and co-researcher James Till took his place about 20 minutes later, and became her lifelong mentor. “That ended up being good for Connie; Jim was more numeric. Connie was all about the math,” Allen says.

While the Toronto program exposed her to the emerging field of stem-cell research, the sexism continued. Early on, the team buried her in meaningless paperwork, hoping she’d quit. On one occasion, everyone else on the team went on a retreat, so when she arrived at the lab that day she found herself alone. Before the next retreat, however, the other PhD students and postdocs refused to go unless she was also invited.

(Years later, when Dr. Eaves pivoted to breast cancer research and published seminal papers but did not get invited to major conferences at first, she shrugged off what was likely discrimination. “It did not bother her. She carried on,” Dr. Kozter says. In a recent interview, Dr. Eaves said of the misogyny she faced in medical research: “I like challenges. I like the idea of someone thinking I could not do something and then doing it anyway.”)

In 1973, she and her family, which included children Neil and Rene, moved to Vancouver and she joined the newly formed BC Cancer Institute. She was the second research scientist hired there.

She and Allen knew each other from Toronto and together founded the Terry Fox Laboratory in 1981. During this period, her marriage to Dr. Gregory ended and she and Allen became partners. They later married and had two children, David and Sara.

While he focused on clinical applications as a medical doctor, Connie devoted herself to basic science and lab work. “She was constantly thinking about how the growth and regulation of blood stem cells is occurring and applying that to the problems we were studying,” Allen says.

Over the years, Connie Eaves served as editor of the journal Experimental Hematology and president of the International Society of Experimental Hematology. She held various positions at the National Cancer Institute of Canada, through which she helped establish the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance.

Aside from her work, she enjoyed music, particularly classical and Nana Mouskouri, as well as ballet, and she loved to garden. But mostly, she was devoted to her family, students and research.

After her diagnosis, Connie continued to attend virtual meetings and write papers, but as her health failed in recent months, Allen says that became impossible. “It was so bad she couldn’t work. That was her whole life, and when she lost that, she didn’t want to hang around.”

Connie Eaves leaves her siblings; husband; children, Neil Gregory-Eaves, Dr. Rene Gregory-Eaves, David Eaves and Sara Terry; and 11 grandchildren.

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